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Safety Pilot: Improving GA safety

2013 was a very good year

It’s way too early to declare victory in the decades-long struggles to improve general aviation safety, but 2013 was very good in one segment: a drop in non-commercial fixed-wing fatal accidents.

bruce landsbergWith apologies to Frank Sinatra, 2013 was a very good year. It’s way too early to declare victory in the decades-long struggles to improve general aviation safety, but 2013 was very good in one segment: a drop in non-commercial fixed-wing fatal accidents. It’s the perennial trouble spot where many bad things happen and for all the wrong reasons. The Air Safety Institute (ASI) produced a 2013 early look scorecard, which we’ll get to momentarily.

Also just published is the twenty-third annual Joseph T. Nall Report, which is the annual state-of-the-union review of GA catastrophes. It honors the memory of an NTSB member who died in a Venezuela airplane crash in 1989. The NTSB has now released final data for 2011, which allows a detailed update of the not-so-recent past.

ASI has expanded the report considerably over the years to focus on the real issues, which guide us in producing seminars, online courses, and dialogue with regulatory agencies and the media on what’s happening and what should be done—not what’s politically expedient, convenient, or the accident du jour.

Here’s the good news from the score card: Fatal non-commercial fixed-wing accidents dropped from 216 in 2012 to 165 in 2013. Disclaimer: Last year’s numbers are still preliminary and so there may be some additions, but unlikely to be of great statistical significance. Alas, one year does not a trend make, so we’ll have to see how this year plays out. Y’all keep being careful.

Rate numbers are squishier because while the FAA makes a valiant effort to estimate, it’s still based on pilot self-reports of flight hours. There’s some similarity to fish tales about the one that got away. Since flying hours are down, the rate has remained fairly constant this decade at roughly 1.2 fatal accidents per 100,000 hours.

So, where do light GA pilots have difficulty according to the Nall Report for 2011? Takeoff and landing usually aren’t fatal. It’s the crunch, bounce, porpoise, slide-off-the-side, or the end-of-the-runway occurrence. The mishaps occur at slow speed in a mostly obstacle-free area and while it’s hard on the hardware, the occupants generally just suffer from embarrassment. This accounts for about 50 percent of the accidents.

Power loss after takeoff, however, has a significantly higher fatality rate. There’s little room to maneuver and while the impossible turn isn’t always impossible, there must be enough altitude and skill to pull it off. That has to be practiced and briefed ahead of time. If the turn cannot be executed we need to find something soft and cheap to hit, which is not always possible around encroached airports. What causes power loss after takeoff? Usually it’s a fuel issue and the solution is simple—sufficient quantity, quality, and fuel selectors properly positioned. Once in a while there’s a legitimate mechanical reason, but that’s unlikely in a well-maintained engine. The italics are an important qualifier.

Another fatality producer is loss of control. That’s a catchall category ranging from low-altitude stalls to buzz jobs to VFR pilots losing control in instrument conditions. Each one of those problem areas requires a different intervention strategy.

Weather is probably the hardest area to address from a knowledge and risk-assessment standpoint. It accounted for 18 percent of fatal accidents and had the highest likelihood of causing death. The aircraft usually hits the ground going very fast and out of control. Pick your poison: Loss of control in IMC, thunder, or ice. It’s all bad and largely avoidable, provided one doesn’t get “mission mindset.” What’s needed is to realistically learn about weather and change plans accordingly.

The media, public officials, and regulatory agencies—who know better—frequently compare GA safety to the airlines. It’s an invalid comparison—as we’ve discussed before. But, and here comes the lecture, personal flying maintains the dubious honor of having the absolute worst record. Understandable, but should we accept it? Especially when you know who is first to the scene of the accident.

Two of the biggest human factors are ignorance and arrogance. The first can be addressed with ongoing education. It starts in primary training and continues throughout a flying career. Learning to fly well is a lifetime commitment. The smarter you become, the greater your aviation longevity.

Arrogance is much tougher to solve. Overestimating one’s skill and judgment is occasionally embarrassing in life’s other activities but it can be lethal in aircraft. Helping risk-tolerant people understand that rules and procedures were established because other risk-tolerant people came to grief is an ongoing challenge. We need to be patient, persistent, and persuasive.


Bruce Landsberg serves as president of the AOPA Foundation—which funds the work of the Air Safety Institute.

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